Fans who braved the 100-degree heat and searing midday sun that robbed the Rose Bowl of a shady side weren’t the only ones sweating Saturday.
UCLA, which entered its season opener against Bowling Green as a 23½-point favorite, looked like a team in need of another month of practice during a first quarter packed with Bruin blunders.
There were two turnovers, a turnover on downs and a blocked punt ending in a touchdown. More baffling, UCLA was forced to burn a timeout after punt returner Jake Bobo trotted onto the field … only to realize a teammate on the field was also wearing his No. 9.
UCLA fell behind by 10 points, bringing out the boos and kicker Nicholas Barr-Mira after getting flagged for delay of game on fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line.
Just when it looked as if the Bruins might choke on a creampuff, they swallowed hard and could give a weary smile.
Rolling off 38 unanswered points thanks to a dominant offense and a defense that finally started making tackles, UCLA ran away with a 45-17 victory in front of an announced crowd of 27,143 that was the lowest the team has drawn since moving to the Rose Bowl in 1982.
“We dug a hole,” Bruins coach Chip Kelly said, “but we didn’t keep digging.”
Those who endured the outdoor sauna in a game Kelly said was as hot as he has ever experienced saw the Bruins pile up yardage after shaking off that sorry first quarter. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson accounted for four touchdowns and 385 of UCLA’s 626 yards of offense despite constantly running from pressure.
The fifth-year senior completed 32 of 43 passes for 298 yards and two touchdowns with one interception while also running for 87 yards and two more touchdowns. Even a slip-up resulted in something positive, offensive lineman Atonio Mafi scooping up Thompson-Robinson’s fumble in the third quarter and rumbling seven yards for a first down.
“I was so happy for him,” Thompson-Robinson said of Mafi. “I’m like, please don’t say I was down because he’s going for it.”
UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet provided the necessary complement, refusing to go down on initial contact while powering his way to 111 yards and one touchdown in 21 carries.
The defense UCLA unveiled under new coordinator Bill McGovern was stingy outside of shoddy tackling in the first half. The Bruins held Bowling Green scoreless over the final 43 minutes and limited the Falcons to 162 total yards of offense.
Kelly said he was pleased with his team’s ability to generate a pass rush with its four-man defensive front, edge rusher Grayson Murphy logging one of the Bruins’ two sacks. Linebacker Darius Muasau recovered a fumble that would have gone for a touchdown had teammate Laiatu Latu not been called for an illegal block in the back.
The game initially looked like a different kind of runaway.
In some ominous foreshadowing, a few boos were unleashed at the end of the Bruins’ first drive when Thompson-Robinson had to throw the ball away on third down with defenders quickly closing in on him.
Bowling Green blocked the resulting punt, Barr-Mira getting pummeled by an unblocked rusher before the ball left his foot. The Falcons recovered the loose ball for a touchdown and UCLA trailed less than two minutes into the game.
It was a particularly rough debut for Bobo, a graduate transfer from Duke. His jersey snafu — he pulled No. 87 over his pads during the timeout — was even more confounding given that Kelly said coaches knew Choe Bryant-Strother, who also wears No. 9, was part of their punt return team.
A painful epilogue followed when Bobo was smashed on the punt return and slow to get up, appearing woozy. And that wasn’t the worst of it. Bobo fumbled the next punt, leading to a short Bowling Green field goal.
“I think he just took his eyes off it,” Kelly said. “It was a fair-catch situation, we just have to field the ball.”
The Falcons eventually took a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter thanks to another UCLA deficiency, three missed tackles allowing tight end Christian Sims to reach the end zone on a 22-yard reception.
The Bruins bounced back with 17 consecutive points to take a 24-17 halftime lead, but even that wasn’t perfect. Their delay of game on fourth down led to a field goal when the Bruins were only two yards from a possible touchdown.
Thompson-Robinson, whose zigzagging 68-yard touchdown run in the first quarter put the Bruins on the scoreboard, threw for two touchdowns late in the second quarter to nudge his team ahead.
The heat was a factor by then, a bevy of Bowling Green players going down with cramps and the Bruins drinking as much fluid as their bodies could handle to ward off dehydration. Sometimes even that wasn’t enough.
“I think I almost got heat exhaustion after that first run,” Thompson-Robinson said.
Had the Bruins’ early struggles persisted, Kelly would have been feeling a different kind of heat. Instead, his team’s resilience allowed him to quote a British prime minister known for fortitude in the face of adversity.
“The cool thing is that Winston Churchill said, ‘The problems of victory are a lot more agreeable than the problems of defeat, but they’re no less difficult,’ ” Kelly said. “So we have things we have to get better at, and I think that’s what college football is. We will not be the same team at the end of the year than we are at the beginning of the year. As I told our guys, I hope our goal is that this is the worst game we play.”